For Talking Points Memo, Rick Perlstein points out that just as the Angel of History was flapping her wings to take the racist Confederate flag down from flagpoles, a Republican candidate who has made open, crude immigrant-baiting statements shot up in the polls — since "conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole." It's driven by a constant, never varying us-vs.-them dynamic fed by the belief that "our" country needs to be "taken back" from some new group identified as the enemy:
Let’s not forget the juxtaposition: at almost precisely the same moment, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign with the immortal words: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And, immediately, Trump shot to the top of the Republican charts—with a bullet: he’s now the most popular candidate among GOP likely voters, four points ahead of Jeb Bush.
There’s an enormous amount to learn in this juxtaposition about how conservatism works at its deepest levels. It drives liberals crazy when conservatives dress themselves in the clothes of the great social-justice movements of the past: when they avow that were he alive now Martin Luther King would be a Republican, when they compare their crusades to force pregnant women to give birth to Mahatma Gandhi’s March to the Sea. This is not a new development; indeed, it’s baked into the reactionary cake.
Conservatives understand that the direction of human history is not on their side—that, other things equal, civilization does tend toward more inclusion, more emancipation, more liberalism. That is the great source of their anger. And that, too, is the source of the compulsion to dress reaction in the raiment of liberation. Politically, it is the only way.
There will always be an enemy, a "them" to juxtapose against "us" who constitute this country, who own it in a singular way: the moment one perceived enemy is removed from the scene, the whack-a-mole process that drives contemporary American conservative thinking will find a new enemy to replace the one that has disappeared. It's the need for an enemy, the us-vs.-them thinking, not the particularity of the enemy du jour (enemies come, enemies go) that drives the entire conservative enterprise.
The photo of Rick Perlstein is from this BuzzFlash article by Mark Karlin.